This week, the Missouri House Education Committee debated a bill that would move school board elections to the November general election date. Right now, many school districts elect their board members in April.
As this pithily-titled piece from the Brookings Institution argues, moving elections on-cycle will both drive up turnout and minimize the effect of organized interest groups. As the author writes:
By exploiting the occasional episode in which a change in state law forced localities to move their elections “on cycle,” [UC Berkeley Political Scientist Sarah] Anzia is able to provide some pretty rigorous causal evidence that off-cycle elections decrease voter turnout and equip organized interests (e.g. teachers unions) to obtain more favorable policy outcomes. Anzia’s findings mesh nicely with other work done by University of Pennsylvania Political Scientist, Marc Meredith, who found that when school boards are given the authority to choose election dates for raising revenue (e.g. bond elections) boards will “manipulate” the timing of elections in predictable ways to ensure an electorate that is most favorable to increased school spending.
That is why I was so surprised when the Missouri School Boards Association announced that it “strongly opposed” the bill. Why would that be? Why would the organization that represents school boards want to drive down turnout in the elections that elect them? I guess they’ll have to answer that one.
A common argument for keeping elections off-cycle is that it somehow keeps politics out of education. That is simply wrong. Schools are a huge state and municipal expenditure and are tasked with imparting skills and knowledge onto the next generation of citizens. Every day, we hand over our state’s most precious resource, its children, to schools. We live in a diverse state where different people have different views about what that education should look like. Any system that we devise to try and manage that will be political.
If education is going to be political, the best thing that we can do is try and make sure that as many of our fellow citizens as possible have the opportunity to make their views known. Moving elections on-cycle allows that to happen.